A growing number of Canadian couples and singles live in homes with vacant bedrooms, a phenomenon that is coming to light as local governments across the country grapple with acute housing needs.
The percentage of singles and couples who live in homes that have a minimum of three bedrooms increased to 29 per cent in Canada in 2021, according to an analysis by The Globe and Mail of census numbers for that year. That compares with 26 per cent in 2006, according to the corresponding census.
The numbers suggest a growing proportion of people are living in homes that are larger than they require and staying in place as they age, rather than downsizing. The trend is driven by an aging population, the lack of suitable housing for seniors and the high cost of smaller housing alternatives, experts say.
The shift can be seen in most of the country’s major urban areas from St. John’s and Halifax, through Quebec, to Ottawa, London and Toronto in Ontario, and across the Prairies.
“It does speak to the underuse of housing. The question is what do you do about it and what can you do about it,” said Aled ab Iorwerth, deputy chief economist with Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp., the federal housing agency.
“The concern is maybe the people with all these spare bedrooms would like to move somewhere in their community but there is nowhere more suitable for them to live in,” he said.
Small cities in Alberta, Ontario and Atlantic Canada had the greatest share of couples and singles who lived in a home with a minimum of three bedrooms in the 2021 census.
St. John’s and Lethbridge, Alta., were the highest at 37 per cent. About a dozen metropolitan areas had more than one-third, including Peterborough, Thunder Bay, Kingston and St. Catharines-Niagara in Ontario; Red Deer, Alta.; and Saguenay, Que.
Even in big cities such as Toronto and Montreal, where smaller detached houses and semi-detached homes account for a larger proportion of the housing stock, the share of empty bedrooms rose over the past 15 years.
The only cities where the proportion of houses with unused bedrooms decreased or remained steady was in British Columbia, where Abbotsford declined by one percentage point, and Kelowna, Vancouver and Victoria remained the same over the past 15 years.
“It appears to be too many rooms for too few people,” said Mathieu Laberge, who helped implement the country’s federal program to improve housing and is now an adviser with KPMG consultancy.
Policy experts and large city mayors are not suggesting that seniors should rent out their rooms en masse to better use the extra space. But cities are looking at ways to build more densely on residential land that is zoned for single-family homes, in an attempt to create duplexes, triplexes and other low-rise multiresidential housing options for seniors and other buyers.
That includes Mississauga, a major urban area west of Toronto, which estimates that its population over age 55 will double by 2031. The most recent census shows that a higher share of seniors than younger people live in single-family homes.
Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie says one issue contributing to a housing crisis in her city is that aging people are, in effect, “overhoused” but are unable to find another place that meets their needs.
The city’s commissioner of planning and building, Andrew Whittemore, told The Globe: “We’ve heard from many older residents that they want the option to downsize and remain in their neighbourhoods.”
The rise of empty bedrooms is not a new trend, but it has come into sharp relief with the spike in home prices and rental rates.
The typical home price across the country is above $750,000. And the average rent increased 10 per cent over the past year to more than $2,000 a month in May, according to Rentals.ca. In Toronto, the monthly rate climbed by 21 per cent over the past year to just over $2,500, according to Rentals.ca.
But creating more housing is not as simple as cranking out hundreds of new homes. There are not enough workers to build the housing units that are already under construction, especially with big infrastructure projects under way, including new public transportation lines. Construction costs are rising owing to labour and material shortages, and many of the new homes being built are small condo units that are not desirable for many residents.
Another problem is that many cities’ residential areas only allow single detached homes. For example, in Toronto, the country’s most populated city, 70 per cent of its residential land had been zoned for low-rise houses until May of this year. A game-changing new law now allows up to four units to be built on a single-family plot of land.
Last year, Statistics Canada issued a study with similar findings: Senior-led households, with residents aged 55 to 74, were more likely to live in a home with empty bedrooms.
The study also found that in the highly populated areas of Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal, where the cost of living is higher than other cities and neighbourhoods, households were less likely to have extra bedrooms, and that vast majority of households living in detached houses were more likely to have extra bedrooms.
“There is extra space in different places and homes across the country,” said the study, which used 2016 census data and measured empty bedrooms using a different methodology.
Aaron Gorski, a census housing analyst with Statscan, said the agency embarked on the study to explore how the use of existing housing stock could be used to alleviate housing shortages.
“It’s difficult to build new housing. So, if there is another aspect that can be looked into that would help provide policy makers or others with some new ideas to help provide some better housing solutions,” he said.
Toronto realtor Lisa Bednarski, who works with seniors, said many of them have the equity in their homes to downsize and make a purchase, but they are deterred by the dearth of appropriate housing available.
“It really has little to do with cost and more to do with not having an answer to ‘Where will I go?’” she said.
The options are condos with pricey monthly condo fees, retirement homes or long-term care homes, which now have a bad name after the COVID-19 pandemic exposed some of their squalid living conditions.
“I’ve been told by many seniors that none of these options are attractive,” Ms. Bednarski said, adding that most want to stay in their neighbourhood, shop at the same grocery store and stay near their community.
CMHC’s Mr. ab Iorwerth expects the unused bedroom trend to grow. “It will accelerate with an aging population, particularly if there is no significant change in zoning those areas to allow higher density,” he said.
“I don’t think we’ve reached the peak of elderly living alone, since we still have a lot of the baby boomers aging ahead of us,” he said.